Most of us feel that we’re good at detecting a lie when actually we’re successful at recognizing deceit only slightly more than fifty percent of the time. Of the approximately twenty behaviors that are regarded as deception cues, only about seven of them are legitimate indicators, and of those seven, all of them can be caused by factors other than lying. Here are the twenty stereotypes that are generally believed by most people to indicate lying; see if you can identify which seven are true cues:
- Adam’s Apple Movement
- Defensive Gestures
- Excessive Sweating
- Eye Contact
Increased Eye Contact
Reduced Eye Contact
- Hand Shrugs
- Head Movements
- Increases in Vocal Pitch
- Longer Response Time
- Postural Shifts
- Pupil Dilation
- Unnatural Gestures
They all look pretty good, don’t they? It’s hard to pick just seven, but here are the only seven cues that provide consistent indicators that someone is dissembling:
- Hand Shrugs
- Increases in Vocal Pitch
- Pupil Dilation
- Speech Errors
- Speech Hesitations
Even these seven don’t mean much individually, but when they appear in clusters, it’s a good indication that someone may not be speaking truthfully. Let’s look at how these cues can appear in groups and discover why they may or may not be good indicators of honesty.
Blinking and Pupil Dilation While both more blinking and pupil dilation are identified in research results as being deception cues, they can indicate such a variety of other conditions that their inclusion is dependent upon their being observed in combination with other deception cues. High intelligence and increased mental activity can also result in excessive blinking, and pupil dilation can result from arousal, attraction, or other interest.
Bodily Discrepancies Look for inconsistent messages, like a confident manner and facial expression, but jittery hands or feet. While jittery hands can be controlled by skilled deceivers, jittery feet are considered by some experts to be more difficult. Trembling, fidgeting, and squirming were all originally identified as deception cues, but current studies indicate that this is not necessarily the case.
Eye Contact We’ve all been told to beware of the person who can’t meet our eyes and is unable to hold our gaze for more than a few seconds. Until recently, this has been true, but times are changing. Over the years, there have been so many references to the stereotype of the shifty-eyed dishonest businessman that most of us are aware of this trait, liars included.
Skilled liars know that shifty eye contact is one of the basic giveaways that will expose them, and they work diligently to overcome this cue, sometimes to the point that they’ll hold eye contact for too long. Current research indicates that liars are likely to maintain more eye contact rather than less these days. This is another area where being familiar with the conversational habits of the person with whom you’re speaking is an advantage.
Hand Shrugs Research equivocates on this issue. Initially, it was thought that hand shrugs (upward gestures with the palms that give the impression that the individual is uncertain about what they’re telling you) were a sign of lying. Later studies are less sure about this.
Self-touches Touching the face and wringing one’s hands are examples of self-touches or adaptors. These behaviors will show a definite increase in unskilled dissemblers, but many more practiced liars will have schooled themselves to use fewer adaptors. The urge to frequently act on these adaptors probably is caused by nervousness and increased tension.
Smiling Frequency At this time, there does not appear to be any consensus among the experts as to whether or not more smiling or less smiling occurs among liars than among truth-tellers.
Speech Error, Hesitations, and Voice Pitch Research has determined that deceptive speakers often have more false speaking starts, speech hesitations, and mispronunciations than those who speak honestly. Deception is more difficult than truth-telling, and that could explain why these behaviors occur. It could also explain why liars’ answers to questions tend to be shorter than an honest person’s answers.
It’s important to understand that unless you know the individual’s normal speech patterns to use for comparison, speech errors and hesitations lose much of their value in determining a person’s veracity. Another speech cue to dishonesty is that liars’ voices rise in pitch when they practice deception. Several studies have confirmed this, and the general consensus is that this is due to the increased tension caused by the stress involved in being deceptive.
None of these potential deception cues is reliable enough to serve as a benchmark for determining whether or not we’re being lied to. One problem with using body language to tell if someone is lying is that the accused person could test positive when being falsely accused because the resulting nervous reaction could prompt several of the deceptive cues we just described, thereby causing the Othello error. An Othello error is caused when an honest individual is unjustly accused of lying based on observations of their body language by a suspicious person. The term relates to the Shakespeare play in which Othello misinterprets Desdemona’s reaction to Cassio’s death.
Deceptive body language does not have its own symptoms but borrows from anxiety symptoms. Anxiety can be caused by many things family trouble, work issues, health woes, being falsely accused, to name just a few and the physical conditions that are studied to determine truthfulness are nothing more than anxiety symptoms. One must exercise extreme caution when accusing someone of lying because as we stated at the beginning of this article, our deception detection skills operate at just over fifty percent accuracy, and most of us score only around forty percent accuracy.
So the next time you’re watching that incessantly blinking politician on the television, ask yourself, Is he lying, or is he really smart? And when your teenager’s voice tone rises a few notches in denial when you ask about that new dent in the family car’s fender, is she lying, or was she really in her room studying all afternoon while you were at work? Judge carefully.